On Saturday, Gordon, Kid 2, and I snuck into the Armadillocon as regular attendees to see Jessie Mihalik, who was one of the panelists on Impostor Syndrome Panel. Jessie wrote an interesting article about it.
She’s right that imposter syndrome doesn’t go away with success. I’ve talked before about the golden carrot. A rider sits on the donkey holding a fishing pole. Dangling from the pole is the golden carrot. The donkey wants the carrot, so he moves forward, but no matter how hard he walks, the carrot is always right in front of him and out of reach.
At first, you want to get an agent, then you want a contract, then you want to hit a list, then you want to hit higher on a list… The goalposts of success keep moving, which always keeps you feeling like you’re falling short. Especially if you borrow another writer’s goalposts. That way lie dragons.
My mother once told me that I shouldn’t wish for other people’s lives or their success, because you never know what kind of problems they have and what that success cost them. I understood the value of this advice when I watched a bestselling author break down in a bathroom at a convention because she didn’t hit high enough on NYT and now she thought she was in danger of losing her next contract. I think we had two books out at this point, and that was really unsettling, because I thought she was on a level we would be deliriously happy to reach, and yet here she was crying her eyes out in between panels.
It’s now years later. We’ve achieved some success in writing, but if I look around, I’m sure I can find another writer whose sales or achievements will make me feel like a failure. So if you’re stuck in that loop, remember, your career is not a race against other people. Are you happy? Are you meeting your own needs? That’s all that matters.
But the other aspect of imposter syndrome is rooted in the very nature of writing itself. Writing – all art, really – is about communication. It evokes emotions; it tries to resonate in some way. Sometimes it evokes love. We want to keep reading, we want to keep looking, we want to keep listening. Sometimes it repels and disturbs instead. As long as it makes you feel something.
Writing is the same. If you are writing a sequel to a hit, you worry if it would resonate with those who were touched by the original. And writing something new is even more scary, because you have no idea if that communication will happen in the way you intended. If you have never shown your writing to anyone, the doubt and fear can be crippling.
But the need to communicate is compulsive, so writers carry on. If you feel like a failure this morning for whatever reason, if you feel like you didn’t earn the success, if you suspect that you might be a fraud, remember, there is a whole bunch of people out there who are floating alone on their little boats in the same bleak sea. It looks like a sea, but it’s really just a puddle. You can step out of your boat and walk to shore.